Tempe history museum overhaul coming - East Valley Tribune: News

Tempe history museum overhaul coming

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Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2008 8:55 pm | Updated: 9:30 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Tempe's Historical Museum is a bit too stuck in the past, even for the history buffs who oversee it. Their problem isn't the 1919 Ford fire truck, artifacts from the Territorial Normal School or blown-up photos of early Tempe.

Rather, the problem is most stuff just sits there - as it has since the museum opened 16 years ago.

The city will shut it down this summer as it's rebuilt to feature new technology, better storytelling and more interactive exhibits to meet contemporary demands. It's joining many other historical museums using technology to renew interest in the past, said Vic Linoff, a museum volunteer.

"This is very well-done, don't get me wrong," Linoff said. "But this is not what people want to see today."

The classic museum timeline is just one example of what will change. The most recent year painted on the wall is 1990, dating even the museum itself. Plus, panels describing artifacts make for a passive experience.

New technology could let visitors use touch-screen monitors to access images or stories that interest them. Perhaps they could download an audio tour on an iPod before they visit or check out one at the front counter. Or even record their own stories so they become a part of the exhibit.

"People expect that type of technology these days, especially younger audiences," museum director Amy Douglass said.

The museum hasn't settled on specific exhibits or technologies yet. It will do that this summer, just before the museum closes in August.

The inside will be gutted, including the replica of Hayden Butte and an in-floor model of ancient and modern Tempe showing how irrigation is key to the community. Little in the museum can change today because it's anchored in the ground. That creates another problem because the museum's focus is on locals and not tourists.

"It's hard to attract people back because they're going to say, 'OK, I've already seen this,'" Douglass said.

The new museum will be more open and flexible so curators can constantly rotate the collection or host visiting exhibitions. Just 10 percent of the museum's collection is on display now, but rotating exhibits will let visitors see much more over time. Now, only small nooks are used to rotate exhibits.

Even the museum's exterior needs some updating. The building sits amid bland city buildings on the southwest corner of Rural Road and Southern Avenue. Douglass envisions a splashier entrance, and redoing a generic lobby so it flows into the exhibit area.

History museums everywhere are struggling, Linoff said. Those that are gaining visitors use technology like holograms or touch-screen monitors to tell stories more theatrically.

He pointed to a rug beater in a display case, saying visitors would truly appreciate the device if they could push a button to see the dust it raised and hear the sounds of smashing the cleaner against carpet.

"The museum isn't about technology," Linoff said. "It's about using technology as a tool."

The $3.5 million renovation was funded by bonds voters approved in 2006. The exhibits will go into storage until the museum reopens in fall 2009. Linoff hopes the redesign will boost the 20,000 visitors who go to the free museum yearly.

The museum will still display some favorites, like the fire truck. The reconfigured exhibits will be grouped by four main themes: The building of Tempe, the desert environment, Arizona State University and diversity/pluralism.

Linoff, who owns a downtown store that sells antiques and memorabilia, said more contemporary approaches should help boost attendance at the museum.

"The interest in history has not gone away," Linoff said. "You just have to tell the story so it engages."

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